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The Denominational Structure is a Drama Queen. There, I said it.

Because most of you don’t know me, let me make a few disclaimers. I love the denomination and its agencies. I’m a third generation minister and you can catch me talking denominational “shop” on my vacations. I’ve spent 10 years on the Home Mission’s board and served as president. I worked for World Missions for 6 years as a missionary joyfully serving along side World Relief missionaries. I’m a regular contributor to the Back to God blog I’m an insider and I love this drama queen but I have to say she is one and it hasn’t been a good thing.

The recent resignation of the Executive Director and Director of Denominational Ministries is just the latest chapter of her history of drama.  When I was serving on the Board of Home Missions too much of our focus as board executives was spent not on overseeing Home Missions but on wrangling with the denominational office and worrying about turf. How does the agency board relate to the denominational Board of Trustees? Who has the final say? Why does the agency director have two bosses (despite Jesus’ words about servants and two masters)? Etc. A lot of energy spent on drama that should have been spent on attention to ministry. Now we’ve got the Board studying its structure and its culture some more. Will this latest round of soul searching bring an end to the drama? I have my doubts. 
I also participate on CRC-Voices which is the oldest (unofficial) CRC denominational cyber-community. Last April in response to the excellent DeMoor/Postma Banner piece on this drama I offered up for discussion a “Modest Proposal” which goes as follows:
  1. Spin off the 4 major denominational agencies as non-profits and get Synod out of the agency management business thus reducing the work of the denominational offices and the Board of Trustees. Let the now smaller, fitter agency boards do their work. 
  2. Put ministry share distribution in the hands of the classes. 
I have a lot to say about point 1 that is beyond one small blog post and doesn’t necessarily fit into the “classis” space on the network. My short point is that Synod is a poor type of body to govern agencies. Running agencies has become a distraction from its focus and the church suffers, not unlike the complaint of the apostles in Acts 6. 
My second point has to do with the long cultural change that has impacted the Ministry Shares system. This too is a big point to spell out here but the culture has changed making it difficult for givers to fully invest in what feels like a monolithic, centralized organization. In some cases denominational Ministry Shares are nearly ten times what classical shares are. Why? I don’t believe there is less money in the CRC for ministry. I think we are experiencing a cultural shift which is quietly redistributing money to ministry that is closer to home. Local churches are spending money on local staff and projects rather than sending it to the Synod to spend at its discretion. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a change. 
When my friend, classical colleague and former CTS classmate Jerry Dykstra came into the position of Executive Director he wanted to bring the “healthy church” priority to the denomination. His thinking was that the future of the entire CRC ecosystem was more dependent upon thriving local congregations than in denominational drama. I think he was right on that call, but I doubt that “the front” of that battle is at the denominational level. I suspect that we could see more of a lift at the grass roots level by increasing classical resources rather than by trying to do it at the denominational level. 
What if we re-directed 20 to 40 percent of the funding now going through Synod to the classical level? I think we would see more part time regional and local specialists available to help resource and support local churches. I think we would see more churches planted and contextual counselors available to help revitalize established churches. Electronic networks and communication can help collaboration between these specialists. I think we would see a greater impact in local church help than by any amount of denominational drama. 
What do you think? If your classis had double the money it has today what would it do differently? If your classis had $100k to hire specialists to assist local congregations or regional ministry projects, how might that bring lift to your churches? 


Got a good chuckle out of your intro... 

great points, worth a lot more discussion...

definitely agree with the quiet shift of resources to more local ministries.  I know we (my husband and I) feel the tension when our church's ministry shares are short, but we feel led to support the local prayer ministry I'm involved with instead.

I see many of the same issues you are seeing, but my analysis is a bit different. Organizations are prone to seek decentralization where there is centralization and centralization where decentralized. Back when each agency worked more on its own, with less centralization, there were significant issues too. One of those issues was that each agency bombarded church members with lots of mailings, each spending plenty to compete with the others. "We" as the denomination were giving money to agencies so they could each compete with the others for us to give them more money to compete with each other. This still happens, of course, but it has been good to have some better centralization in this regard.

There were other issues then too, some of which I saw too closely that are hopefully in the past and that I will not indicate here. Also, I can say with certainty that there were illegal activities taking place where I know the parties were told the activities were illegal and continued the practices knowingly and on purpose. A whistle blower could do nothing other than work like crazy to eliminate the illegal behavior across all of the agencies in a way that the denomination spent a lot more money than if there had been an ED at the time. It was so decentralized that I doubt you can find anyone who would know what I am talking about (but you can ask me offline). So, while I am sure that there are some centralized functions that could benefit, even if only from a Hawthorne type of effect, from decentralization, I would not be too quick to jump toward really significant decentralization to the local classis.

Classes have some of the biggest baggage in the denomination and often have significant differences of opinion within a loosely-formed, sometimes dysfunctional, group. For example, there can be churches that favor launching new churches and others that insist on very strict adherence to xyz within their classis in such a way that would hamper a new church. Some have decided against women and others for women while the classis then has the authority not to seat women. It might shock some to know that there are still many all-male classis in our denomination even in 2011.

I suggest that instead of going the route of putting more in the hands of classis, we could do something signficant with potentially much better results by doing what many companies do and eliminate the "middle management." So, I'll suggest that any decentralization be to the local churches. Churches might decide to work with another church, but if they get a denominational grant, for example, they could work with other churches of a like mind, without a classis in the middle. Local churches already have a means to function that works for their organizational culture. The denomination can help with  economies of scale and we could completely eliminate classical interference (many new churches have stories about how a classis has tried to trip them up, for example) by eliminating classes or reducing their role rather than expanding it.

I do not see this as cut and dried, but I would favor a focus on local congregations, possibly with regional assistance coming from the denomination. This approach aligns with the healthy church initiative and would be good if there were a home missions push to encourage churches to birth daughter churches, for example. If we focus on making our churches and our denomination healthy with our limited resources, we could have less, rather than more, handled by the "middle management" of our classes. I realize this is a drastically different approach and that you are tasked with doing what might be considered to be a marketing function for classis with this blog, so this is likely the opposite direction you want to go, but what do you see as the downside to eliminating classes altogether? [Yes, I know it would be radical and we are a slow-moving organization, but sometimes it is worth doing an apple-cart upset.] If we do not go that route, then we really need to do something to make it much easier for a classis to get something done, and, of course, we must end the discrimination against women for some of us to have any interest in putting more money in the hands of these organizations. Make sense?

I'm glad you're keeping this conversation going. Your point that "Synod is a poor type of body to govern agencies" seems right  on. With all due respect to the individuals involved, the recent appointment of the deputy Executive Director is puzzling if in fact the denomination is seeking change. It seems like more of the same for the foreseeable future. We have an entrenched system that is manifestly dysfunctional and highly resistant to change.

By the way I want one of those cultural shirts, size M. Oh, sorry, you meant cultural shift. ;)

Paul VanderKlay on August 10, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for the comment and especially catching the typo. I changed it. pvk

Eric Verhulst on August 18, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Agree.  Hiring the Deputy Exec. Dir. they did seems to affirm the problem rather than solve it.

As for myself, I think I'd avoid a job with the acronym DED.  "HI, I'm X, DED ('dead') CRC!" ;-)

"A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government" ~Thomas Jefferson

This quote has, especially as of late, been abused by many to justify competing approaches to debt ceilings and budgets. While there may be widom there, a main task for any representative body is to instill a sense of cooperation instead of entitlement between local and federal/central expressions of government.

We should pray that as we continue to debate the culture, structure and overall vision of our church governance, we don't lose sight of our shared mission through the fog of competing ideas

Thanks for the provoking post, Paul

Keep more money on the classical level?!? As they say in Minnesota, "Ish." Granted, I have only been a part of two classes in 16 years of ministry. But I would very much hesitate to give more money to classis. While Synod might not be the way to manage ministries of this size, classes can be downright dysfunctional when it comes to spending money and offer very little in the way of oversight of the ministries that they support. I would love to see more money kept on the local level, but I have my doubts that it would be used as efficiently as the denomination is able to. In fact, if memory serves (still), I believe an unnamed 3rd generation CRC pastor once remarked on how efficient our system is for the support of missionaries. :-)

What it boils down to for me is this: I don't believe money is the issue. Our ministries (CRC, classical and local) are not lacking money and management. They are lacking in leadership. IF money is the issue, it is only because it is perceived as the solution. Yes, there are things that we could do on the local level if we had more money that we don't do now. But how many of them would really help us to develop fully committed followers of Jesus Christ?

It strikes me that this debate is similar to what I hear about funding education. Some say more money is the solution; others say we would do fine if we were free of government bureaucracy. And still others just go out and get the job done with what they have.

Just my two cents worth - which won't support a missionary, a chuch plant or a denominational executive.

In any structure, Calvin Seminary, BTGH, Foreign Missions, some parts of Faith Alive would need to be supported centrally.  Home Missions for areas where Classis is very small in terms of membership would also need to be there to build a broader CRC presence. If these become financial stand-alone non profits like the CRWRC, each church would need to distribute funds to these organizations separately. 

I am not sure what savings would be possible. Organizations sharing resources and making decisions communally produce strong and vibrant organizations.

The financial group in Grand Rapids and Burlington seem to hold a tight grip. Directional decisions can easily be made by allocating finances in a certain way. However, it seemed to me, that such decisions, although made, were not made very evident to Synod. Classis too, can operate efficiently with an expert treasurer.

The proportion of budgets covered by shares seems to be decreasing each year. Not only are churches supporting local initiatives more and more, but the agencies are actively looking for and finding additional funding. 

Classis does not really behave as middle management.  Churches have direct access to CRC agencies. The only middle management function they perform is to discuss overtures to Synod and to select its representatives. 

August Guillaume

Good points, August. Classis does not act like middle management across the board, but it does serve as middle management in at least one way that trips my radar.  A classis in our denomination can decide not to permit any Koreans, Hispanics, or Black people to participate in decisions that affect the church members in their area by not allowing them a seat at the classis meetings. Synod does not do this and churches can make sure they do not discriminate, but the classis can vote to discriminate in this way and make decisions while blocking groups of people from full participation in the church in this way. 

No, wait, I have that wrong. It looks like these groups may send males, but only males, to such classis meetings. it is a much larger group in the denomination that the classes may block -- some classes in our denomination actually decide they will not permit any women to participate! WOW, Shocking, eh? Are we willing to be a member of a country club that does not permit tee times for black people, I mean for women? How badly does that tug at your conscience?

Has almost everyone who is wrenched by this either left the denomination or in a classis that no longer blocks women so that they think this issue is behind our denomination? Sadly it isn't. It is still one of the big issues our denomination has to cope with in order to be healthy. We really need to get beyond it. Granting more authority (in terms of budget dollars, for example) to these classes that have the authority to exclude women does not seem like the way to get beyond it.

We could be a light in this world, where in so many countries and households women are treated so poorly. We could also be an example of how we can have churches that discriminate side by side with churches that don't in the same denomination, but not by blocking women at the classis level. It might be very difficult for us to get beyond this issue in our midst without replacing classis with something else. So, that's my vote (and I remember when women could not vote in our churches). smiles.  --dawn

Thanks for a very thought-provoking article. .As a layperson,  I don't see any point to strengthening the classis. We would be better off with abolishing them, I've attended a number of them and don't see any value for the local church. The idea of sending classis cops to a church annually serves absolutely no purpose. Ministry should happen at the local level and to facilitate it our denomination only needs two agencies. One agency would focus inward on congregational health and contain all the services that support local congregations. A second would be outward focused in helping congregations connect with their communities and the world. With this simple structure an annual oversight by synod would not be complicated, as the BOT would provide the day-to-day oversight. There are too many stove pipes @ Grand Rapids office which should be reduced to two and they should work directly with congregations. 

I've mixed feelings.

First, I think the agencies are an aberration on the core concilliar structure of the presbyterian form of church government.  They grew out of committees that eventually became more-or-less permanent, standing committees, but have never really fit well.  In part, this is because the Synod supposed to oversee them is different every year while the people being overseen become quasi-permanent.  One finds this same thing in a government setting where the civil service is essentially permanent while the supposed overseers are switched out every couple years or so.  The permanent bureaucrat can easily undermine, slow-walk, or just wait out the overseer. 

These permanent committees/agencies/bureaucracies also tend to develop an internal culture that begins to divide them from those they supposedly serve.  Sure, the bureaucrat might use the 1st person pronoun to include the whole when speaking in public, but in private, the bulk of the community is in the 3rd person.  In the CRC structure, the move to regional representation on boards has served to further sever the connection between the bureaucrat/agency official and the community as a whole.  Several agencies in the denomination have a representative from my region whom I've never seen and/or who has never been to our classis meetings, much less e-mailed or otherwise corresponded with the congregation.  I have no idea who they are, not even a name detached from a face.  Other than the "CR" in the agency's titular acronym, there is no connection.

Second, it is vital that the denomination be able to act collectively if the word "church" is to apply to an institution larger than a specific congregation in any meaningful way.  These kinds of agencies/standing committees, with the funding sources that support them, are a most efficient way of doing so.  If we had a better way, we'd use it, but we don't.

So, how do we reconnect the ministry of the denomination with the members in a substantive way that reduces the "us-them" dynamic and restores the authority of the church's councils (local, regional, and national)?

I would suggest that the strife among the agencies is not a bad thing in this.  If, for instance, CRWRC and CRWM and CRHM are squabbling in a way that forces them to go to an external authority - Synod - for resolution, the authority of Synod vis-a-vis the agencies is enhanced.  I would, therefore, eliminate the Board of Trustees.  The drama will be there regardless, but we can manipulate the drama so it serves rather than dominates.

I would then relocate these agencies away from a single, central location.  Put one of them in NW Iowa, another in Wisconsin or somewhere around the base of Lake Michigan (Illinois or Indiana), another in New Jersey, and another in either Washington (around Lynden or Vancouver) or California.  Leave only the smaller groups - Disability, Pastor-Church, etc., in Grand Rapids.  In Canada, take the counterparts and split them between Ontario and Alberta.  The availability of web conferencing at low cost means they would still be able to collaborate.  In this way, although there would still be a certain amount of "us-them", the "us" would be a region of people who have a personal connection with a given agency rather than merely that specific agency.

Granted, this is a mitigation rather than a solution to the problems you mention.  Oversight will still be a problem, for in this more diffused set-up, people will have greater latitude for ignoring decisions they find distasteful, but then, that's not much different from the current set up.

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